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Do you want to understand the psychology of lying? How can you stop yourself from lying to others?

From a young age, people are taught not to lie. Being dishonest is deceiving and manipulative, which leaves the deceived in a vulnerable position. Yet people still lie all the time.

Learn more about the psychology of lying to get a grasp on why people do it, how to spot it, and how to be more honest.

Why People Lie

We’ll first look at why people are dishonest to understand the psychology of lying. Day to day, you may lie to the outside world to get what you want and to avoid pain. You tell lies to appear more competent, to gain status, to be well-liked, and to prevent conflict. This is you manipulating the world.

On a deeper level, you may lie to yourself about what you want, says Jordan Peterson in 12 Rules for Life. You might have a dream life envisioned by your younger self, without probing carefully into whether you want it (career and retirement goals are common examples here). You may entertain ideas about what you want, but deceive yourself into thinking they’re impossible to reach or undesirable after all. You then act in ways that you paper over with more lies, but deep down you know it’s inconsistent with your beliefs, and you feel unsettled.

Your lie may begin with protecting yourself from reality. You may believe reality is intolerable and must be distorted. You want to avoid that short-term pain. But after a certain point, the lies take on a life of their own

  • First, you start with a little lie, then support it with further little lies. 
  • Then you distort your thinking to avoid the shame of those lies. 
  • Then those lies become necessary and become ritualized into unconscious action. 
  • The longer you lie, the more you believe it, and the harder it is to undo.

All this applies to many levels of existence. You may be lying to yourself:

  • About what you want to do with the rest of your life. 
  • That you enjoy a job that actually bites against your being. 
  • That you continue relationships you know are toxic, under the guise of convenience or comfort. 
  • That you’re not capable of something, that it’s not worth trying, even though deep down you know you really want it. 
  • That a bad habit really isn’t that bad, or actually good for you. 
  • That things will get better on their own and things will magically work out without your involvement. 
  • That you know what you’re doing in life when really you’re too scared to confront uncertainty.

Obviously, there are many reasons why you or other people lie every once in a while. If you don’t want people being dishonest with you, you’re going to have to learn how to be a lie detector.

Why You Need to Be a Lie Detector

You might wonder why you need a system to detect deception—like most people, you likely feel that you can tell when someone’s lying to you. However, the authors of Spy the Lie note that it’s impossible for anyone—even intelligence community professionals—to simply know whether someone is lying. Adding to the conversation of the psychology behind lying, the authors give two reasons for this: human bias and people’s tendency to hide deception within the truth.

Reason #1: Humans Are Biased Toward Believing Others

Even when you have good reason to think someone is lying to you, your inherent desire to believe them can make you miss or excuse signals of their deception. You may even be biased to believe certain kinds of people are trustworthy—a Supreme Court justice, your grandmother, or the manager of your child’s daycare—although people from all walks of life can be liars.

Reason #2: People Often Hide Deception Within Truth

When spotting deception, many people think they should look for fabrications: false statements, which can be easy to notice because they conflict with known facts. In reality, deception often hides within truth—instead of making direct fabrications, a deceiver will carefully speak in a way that adds no new information to a conversation, and therefore can’t conflict with the truth. This makes their deception more difficult to notice.

The authors describe two main ways that people hide deception within truth: manipulation and omission. Let’s further explore the psychology of lying by explaining why each is tricky to pick up on.


Manipulation in the context of deception means making true statements to make you seem more trustworthy. Manipulation exploits the common bias that people are honest—if someone reminds you why you should trust them, you’ll often go along with it. Manipulation is especially effective in situations where it doesn’t make sense for someone to have done something wrong.


Omission in the context of deception means leaving out important information from an otherwise true statement. The authors explain that most people feel uncomfortable with fabricating false statements—it’s psychologically easier to believe that omitting vital details means they aren’t really lying. Unlike a manipulator, someone who deceives via omission doesn’t offer an argument as to why you should consider them innocent.

How to Spot a Lie

According to What Every Body Is Saying by Joe Navarro and Marvin Karlins, body language can reveal signs of possible deception. According to psychology, liars tend to exhibit more insecure behaviors because deception takes mental effort and often causes stress, which can trigger some limbic responses that we can identify. 

However, no behavioral cue can directly indicate whether or not a person is lying. Research has shown that even the most experienced behavioral analysis experts have, at best, a 60% chance of correctly guessing whether someone’s lying. For this reason, he cautions you to be careful when using body language alone to accuse someone of deception.

Navarro offers specific deception-related signs:

1) Delayed or Inconsistent Behavior: Navarro explains that people who are lying often have delayed responses since they’re consciously trying to behave in a way that matches their words. For instance, if someone says that they agree with you, observe whether their nod occurs at the same time as their words. If they start nodding after they speak or even start shaking their head side-to-side, this delay or inconsistency in behavior may indicate inauthenticity.

Similarly, people who are lying might not be displaying the appropriate emotions for the situation. For example, if someone asks to borrow money for an emergency, they should be acting anxious and urgent rather than relaxed and collected.

2) Uncommitting Behavior: Navarro explains that people who are lying tend to be less committed to their statements and use fewer grand gestures to convince you of what they’re saying. A person might give a half-hearted shrug instead of a full one, or they might cover their mouth while speaking.

One specific behavior that reflects commitment is whether someone gestures with their palms up versus palms down. Navarro explains that raising your palms when you speak suggests you’re asking to be believed, whereas facing your palms down while speaking demonstrates emphasis.

Tips for Detecting Deception

Now that you understand the difficulty of detecting deception and two specific cues you can look for, let’s look at Navarro’s tips on how to assess whether someone might be lying:

Tip #1: Get a complete view of the person. Navarro suggests you clear any obstacles between you and the person you’re interacting with so that you can observe their full body. He states that oftentimes the most honest half is concealed under a table, making it harder to make good judgments.

Tip #2: Make the person feel comfortable. Since discomfort can indicate deception, try to help the person feel comfortable at the start of your interaction. This gives you a baseline for judging their future behaviors when transitioning into more difficult topics.

Tip #3: Ask focused questions. Navarro explains that just because someone’s talking a lot doesn’t mean that they’re telling the truth. By controlling the conversation with specific questions, you can trigger behavioral cues in someone instead of letting them ramble and lead the interaction.

Tip #4: Look for self-comforting behavior. After asking a focused question, assess the person’s stress levels by looking for any attempts they make to comfort themselves. When you observe self-comforting behaviors, try to make note of what stimuli preceded them to get an understanding of what made them uncomfortable.

Tip #5: Leave room for silence. Navarro advises you to insert deliberate pauses between your questions so that your interviewee has time to react and you have time to observe. Instead of drilling them with a series of questions, ask a single question and wait for a response.

How to Stop Lying

We irrefutably think of ourselves as good and honest people, even though everyone is guilty of dishonest actions—like taking a roommate’s leftovers or swiping a few pens from work.

We put laws and oaths in place to prevent dishonesty, but the promise of financial benefit is strong. People easily find loopholes that allow dishonest dealings. For example, pharmaceutical companies can’t bribe doctors with money, but they can send them on nice vacations. 

In Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely says that the key to being honest is recognizing the irrational mental gymnastics we go through to think of ourselves as honest while acting dishonestly. The type of dishonesty perpetrated by otherwise honest people is at least one degree separated from cash because the absence of money makes it much easier for you to rationalize your actions. Rationalizations leave our consciences untriggered—we can believe that we’re honest people, even though we regularly engage in dishonest actions. 

  • For example, if you write off lunch with a friend as a business expense, you might think, “She works in a similar field so this was a valuable networking opportunity.” 

The first step to becoming more honest is recognizing the ways you’ve rationalized dishonest behaviors. When you know your patterns of rationalization, it’s easier to spot them when they come up and consciously work against them. The second step is interrupting these thought processes by reframing your thinking—think about the cash value of your dishonesty. For example, if you’re about to write off that lunch as a business expense, ask yourself, “Would I take $100 directly from my company?” 

To Ray Dalio (author of Principles: Life and Work), making the best decision means having total receptivity alongside extreme honesty and transparency—when you know that other people are open-minded and you don’t have to worry about hurting their feelings, you can be more truthful about issues. At Bridgewater, Dalio created a culture that refuses to compromise the objective truth to skirt around people’s egos and emotions. 

Extreme Honesty

Dalio says extreme honesty means not putting a filter on your thoughts. Instead, you reveal them, question relentlessly, and surface issues immediately instead of hiding them. At Bridgewater, this means that everyone has not only the privilege but the obligation to speak up publicly and to call people out when they do something foolish—even Dalio.

Extreme Transparency

Extreme transparency means letting everyone see everything. Dalio says that everyone in an organization should get access to the full truthful information, rather than having it filtered through other people first. In turn, people with more complete information can make better decisions, and the organization draws on the full power of its people. 

Wrapping Up

The psychology of lying is a complicated concept, as it’s a social human behavior that people have a hard time avoiding. That’s why it’s important to learn how to spot lies in others, and how to overcome the urge to lie to yourself.

What else can we add to this article on the psychology of lying? Let us know in the comments below!

The Psychology of Lying (+ How to Detect Dishonesty)

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Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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